More thoughts about books: How expectation affects reading

2011-06-22 12:02

I have recently been re-reading the Ethshar books, by Lawrence Watt-Evans. I was first introduced to these many many years ago, when someone lent me a copy of The Misenchanted Sword, telling me it was a “very funny” book. I read it, enjoyed it, and kept an eye out for more books by the same author.

For many years, I kept reading these books, and every time I read one of them I felt vaguely disappointed, but I kept buying them. The anomaly never really stuck out at me, but recently I noticed that the author had observed that larger publishers were not interested in these, because they didn’t sell well enough, and that got me to thinking.

When I read The Misenchanted Sword, it was presented to me as a comedy book, and I read it as such. It has a hilarious mishap (the misenchanted sword of the title), and it somehow feels Not Quite Right for a fantasy novel, therefore it’s a comedy, right? Similarly, the second book (With a Single Spell) is about a wizard who only knows one spell, so he can’t do anything else. Comedy, right? Well, the thing is. There’s certainly humor in these books (in one of the later books, a wizard uses the Spell of the Eighth Sphere to seek information), but in general the books are not particularly comedies.

So here’s the thing. The reason I found them disappointing was that I kept thinking they were supposed to be funnier. By the time I got to Single Spell, I’d read a couple of Pratchett’s comedy fantasy novels, and I was trying to find the funny, and it just wasn’t happening. So why did I keep reading the books? Why do I own all of them, many of them in both paperback and e-book?

Because they’re good stories. The thing is, they’re stories which don’t fit the conventions of the fantasy genre. They aren’t stories about the major heroes of the day. In The Misenchanted Sword, the major events of the war do not primarily involve the protagonist. He then procedes to… open an inn. This creates a vague sense of cognitive dissonance, which we tend to interpret as “funny” when reading, but the real problem is the expectation. We assume that fantasy stories are about Epic Heroes having Epic Adventures. The Ethshar books aren’t; they’re about people going about their lives. The setting contains plenty of magic, sure. Some of the characters do heroic things, or have adventures. But fundamentally, the point of the books is not epic happenings, but people experiencing life.

Reading them as such, rather than expecting something else, I don’t find them disappointing at all; they’re good stories with interesting characters. The things that the characters do may not involve the overthrow of the Evil Overlord, but they are significant enough to the people involved; sometimes that’s a lot of people, sometimes only a few. But life is like that. Most of us find our own lives interesting enough, after all.

Watt-Evans has written books outside this setting as well; the Annals of the Chosen series is more traditional in scope, with weighty events involving heroes at the core of them. (Excellent books, I might add.) But for one reason and another, the Ethshar books are the ones I come back to most often, simply because I find the characters and setting interesting.

I suspect that it’s the violation of genre conventions that has limited the success of the books; people may not be quite clear on why you’d read a fantasy novel in which no kingdoms are overthrown. All I can say is, they really are fascinating books. The Misenchanted Sword is still one of my favorites in the series, though.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. I have always enjoyed Watt-Evans Ethshar series. In particular I like the novel Unwilling Warlord. Though I truthfully can’t say that I liked his traditional epic fantasy as much as the non-epic. There just seems to be greater feeling to the characters in the non-epic. I’ve tried to find other novels in this sub-genre of fantasy but it can be rather difficult to find. I will have to find the link to the discussion thread over at SF/F forums on the topic.

    — Faelyn · 2011-06-23 23:40 · #

 
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